Written by Dr. Mike Israetel
The entire purpose of powerlifting is brutally simple; to get stronger. Getting stronger involves training heavy, controlling your diet, and taking the right supplements. But in the quest for PRs, the options can get complicated rather than simple. A quick look on any powerlifting website reveals that the variety of diets seems almost endless, as does the choice of supplement regimen. Included in this complexity is the approach to training. It seems as if everyone and their mother has their own training “method” nowadays. The diversity in training philosophy is so great it almost makes me nostalgic for the days of Westside dominance (almost). What’s a lifter to do?
Well, the good news is that there is quite a bit of a scientific and practical consensus on what constitutes the optimal approach to training. Through the combination of scientific principles and real-world application, a general template for raw powerlifting training can be described. And luckily, right in this very article!
First, let’s start with some definitions:
Periodization is the long-term sequence of training which allows for 3 distinct benefits to raw powerlifters:
1.) Enhanced rate of gains
2.) Reduced injury rates
3.) Ability to peak for the meet (not one week before or 2 weeks after)
Meet periodization begins right after your last meet and ends with your next one, when it restarts again for the meet after. While the particulars of applying periodization can seem complex, basic raw powerlifting periodization is a result of the application of only 6 principles of training. These 6 training principles guide the training process by letting the lifter/coach know what to do, and often as important, what not to do. Here they are, with simple, no-nonsense definitions:
1.) SRA (Stimulus-Recovery-Adaptation): You get better by training, but the gains are made when you rest. This is why you don’t squat heavy on Monday, front squat heavy on Tuesday, then take the rest of the week off. Train, rest and recover, repeat… that’s SRA.
2.) Overload: If you want to become stronger, you’ve gotta lift heavier weights. Seems like a no-brainer, but you’d forget this principle if you looked at some programs. Plan to lift heavier gradually, and do it. There’s no dynamic effort workout to make you brutally strong.
3.) Specificity: If you want to become good at something, practice that something. If you want to bench off of your chest, and the last 4 workouts before your meet have been to boards, you’re gonna have a problem. A subset of this principle is “directed adaptation.” It states that if you wanna get good at something, you have to do it IN SEQUENCE, not just every now and again. If you only do a low-bar squat once a month, you’re unlikely to be progressing as fast as if you did it for 4 weeks straight.
4.) Variation: If you do the same things for too long, you’ll slow in gains. Novel exercises (at the right time) can spur new gains in size and strength. Front squats, dumbbell presses and stiff-legged deadlifts are great tools to use for certain periods of time.
5.) Fatigue Management: As you train, you accumulate wear-and-tear, your fuel stores deplete, and your hormonal levels change for the worse. A planned reduction in training volume (and sometimes intensity) every so often reduces built-up fatigue and allows you to make gains faster while reducing injury rates.
6.) Phase Potentiation: Training in a certain style one month can enhance the gains made with another style next month, so proper sequencing is key. If you do a strength phase first, then a hypertrophy phase, at the end of the process, you’ll have lots of muscle, but you won’t be able to exert force as effectively as possible, since you’re used to doing sets of higher reps. However, if you do a hypertrophy phase and then follow that with a strength phase, you take the new muscle from the hypertrophy phase and make it stronger. The result is a more effective final product. Order matters.
With the training principles as our guides, we can now lay the foundation of a basic raw powerlifting periodization. Let’s take a 5 month meet prep and use that as an example. Since our goal is to total more at the end of the 5 months, we have several competing demands. In no particular order, we need to:
– Add muscle
– Peak for the meet
– Get stronger
These are all valid goals, but unfortunately they can’t all be done at the same time. The sub-principle of directed adaptation tells us that if we want to get stronger or add size or peak, we have to train in that particular way for at least a couple of weeks, and we can’t bumble back and forth. Additionally, training in one way is not what’s best for all others. The volume of peak training is too low to add much strength or size, and the reps and volumes of hypertrophy interfere with strength adaptations. So, we need to find a way to sequence the training priorities, or “phases” in order to get the best final product. Remember, we don’t care about how strong we are on the 1RM lifts themselves any other day of the year except for meet day.
Let’s start with what we know for sure; peaking must come last, if for no other reason than it must come right before the meet! If you’re doing singles or triples 4 months out of the meet, that’s optional at best, but doing them the month before the meet is mandatory. Secondly, we know that before we train for strength, we’ve gotta have the muscle to train. Thus, we know that the hypertrophy phase must come before the strength phase. The strength phase will take that new muscle and pound it into a stronger functioning unit. Peaking is last, and hypertrophy comes before strength… well, sounds like we have a sequence already developing:
1.) Hypertrophy (get more muscle)
2.) Strength (make the new muscle stronger)
3.) Peaking (learn to express that new strength maximally)
There are more reasons than the ones listed for structuring the phases in this manner. One quick one is that peaking phases are best attempted when you’re already used to lifting fairly heavy weights. Anyone who’s attempted singles or triples after several months of high rep training can attest to the utter and unpleasant shock of heavy weights. Thus, the strength phase should likely precede the peaking phase, etc… We could go on and on about the validity of this sequence, but I’d rather get to the nitty-gritty and give you some details about each phase.
The hypertrophy phase is designed to add muscle, specifically muscle that will translate to bigger lifts. Thus, we already know what muscle groups to train and which ones are optional for vanity’s sake. Quad, hamstring, glute, and chest hypertrophy should take precedence for the raw powerlifter. Because some of the best exercises to build the muscles used in the powerlifts ARE the powerlifts themselves, we can certainly stick to the basics. However, because you just focused on the powerlifts for so long in your previous peaking phase they won’t be the most shocking and thus necessarily the best moves at this time.
What may work slightly better is to use modified versions of the powerlifts as the basis of hypertrophy training. The lifts are modified in such a way as to exaggerate the effects on a particular muscle, so as to more effectively grow that muscle. In large part, this can be based on particular weak points you may have in your lifting. For example, if your quads are your weakness in squatting, high bar squats and front squats may take precedence in this phase. If your chest is weaker but your triceps are stronger, wider benching and more dumbbell work may be in the cards, etc. If your sumo lockout is weaker than your pull off the floor, then perhaps some SLDLs and conventional deadlifts are on the horizon. In any case, you’ll notice that there are no fru-fru pansy exercises. No cable one-arm triceps extensions or band rear-laterals. Basic, compound moves for high volumes are the ticket, which means lots of sets of reps between 5 and 10 per set.
As in any phase, each week should see you adding between 5 and 10lbs to the lifts, while staying just shy enough of failure to be able to match your reps week after week, because there’s no way around the overload principle. Every 4-6 weeks, most lifters will benefit from a volume deload week (keep the weights heavy but bring the reps down by half) in order to bring down fatigue. After about 2 months of this, our hypothetical 5 month plan is ready for a shift.
With our focus on hypertrophy in the previous months, we’re now bigger than ever, and it’s time to make that new muscle strong. Heavy strength training not only enhances the nervous system’s ability to use the new muscle to produce more force, it changes the alignment of that new muscle and further enhances its ability to allow for strength expression. With our set numbers still high, we bring down our reps into the 3-6 range, and as always, increase weights slowly week to week, staying just shy of failure.
When choosing our exercises, the principle of variation will inform us that our hypertrophy movements will now be pretty stale, but on the other hand, our competition moves will be very fresh again, and what better moves for strength gain than competition lifts? The sub-principle of directed adaptation will remind us that we need to train the competition lifts for quite some time in order to really get to be the best at them, so the strength phase is likely a good time to start.
Some assistance exercises are of course performed, and they’ll also be done for lower reps to continue to stimulate strength gains. Some of the moves we used in the hypertrophy phase (or even new ones we didn’t use last time) can work as assistance moves, but they should now be more related in movement pattern to the competition lifts, as the principle of specificity demands that we narrow our focus to muscles and movement patterns that enhance the 3 lifts in a direct way. For example, after training paused competition benching, some narrow or wide grip benches without a pause can be done, but standing barbell presses may be too much variation at this point, and won’t translate to bigger benches as directly.
After 2 months of strength training (and with 1-2 deloads in there as needed), we’re only one month away from the meet, and it’s time to start the final phase.
With the meet only one month away, our goal is two-fold. First, we need to make sure we are fully prepared for the specific task of lifting a 1-RM in competition. Secondly, we need to make sure we’re not just strong when we get to the meet, but low on fatigue as well.
Leading up to one week before the meet, we’ll be lifting heavier and heavier in the 1-3 rep range. Since the peaking phase is so short, it’s not very necessary to do too much assistance work, since muscle mass hangs in for weeks on end with very low volumes, especially if heavy weights are lifted frequently during that time. Thus, it’s all about getting into the gym and lifting HEAVY. Don’t blow your load and go overboard by missing attempts all the time, but do push it with heavy weights in the 1-3 rep range. While there is some difference between the lifts, you should be working up to your heaviest weights about 1.5 weeks before the day of the meet, with deadlifting being closer to 2 weeks and benching being closer to 1 week for most people.
In the final week before the meet, many lifters choose to rest completely, to reduce fatigue but others opt for a slightly more nuanced approach. It might be a good idea to get into the gym VERY EARLY in that last week, and just hit singles or doubles for a few sets with 30% or so of your max on only the competition lifts. There is research to suggest that doing so will simultaneously bring fatigue down faster than complete rest and keep your technique sharper on the lifts for meet time, which can mean the differences between a missed PR attempt and a good one.
Whether you choose to go for a week of full rest or throw in a day of easy training followed by full rest, come meet time you should be peaked EXACTLY for the heavy competition lifts, and that’s how your best performances are set up.
Better in the Long Term
Via phase potentiation, the hypertrophy phase makes the strength phase more productive with its added muscle, and the strength phase gives you the raw brute force to work with for the final peaking phase. At the end of every peaking phase is a meet, and after a week or so post-meet rest, the next hypertrophy phase begins. And so, the cycle repeats itself, propelling you into higher and higher strength levels and competition success.
As athletes get better and better at powerlifting, the time spent in each phase changes slightly. Because the biggest limiting factor for beginner lifters is their size (or rather, lack thereof), they should probably focus more on the hypertrophy phase than the other two phases, and because peaking won’t be much of an issue with lighter and moderately-light weights, the peaking phase can be shortened concomitantly. In a 5 month meet prep, perhaps 3 months of hypertrophy work, 1.5 months of strength work, and only 2 weeks of peaking may be optimal for beginner lifters.
Intermediate lifters are already starting to fill out their frames with muscle, but need to keep expanding their strength base. Thus, they may better spend their time equally between the hypertrophy and strength phases, exactly as mentioned in our primary example through this article. As they get better, they may lessen the hypertrophy commitment and expand their strength work to a 1:3:1 ratio of hypertrophy, strength, and peaking.
Advanced lifters will have most of the size they need for their weightclass, and will have an excellent strength base, but will need more time adjusting to the super-heavy weights they lift in competition. Thus, they will have shorter hypertrophy and strength phases, but longer peaking phases. Some advanced lifters may benefit from as many as 8 weeks of peaking, and only require about 2 weeks for re-gaining the size they lost in the week before and after the meet. Thus, they take 2 weeks of hypertrophy, 2.5 months of strength, and 2 months of peaking to prep for a meet.
What I have given you is a very basic outline of periodization for powerlifting. Use it wisely and you may find that you like the results!
Born in Moscow, Russia, Mike Israetel is a professor of Exercise Science at the University of Central Missouri. Additionally, he is a competitive powerlifter and bodybuilder, and has been the head sport nutrition consultant to the US Olympic training site in Johnson City, TN. Mike is currently the head science consultant for Renaissance Periodization, and the Author of “The Renaissance Diet.”